A Retreat in Ars | An Interview with Fr. Frederick L. Miller, author of The Grace of Ars | March 9, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
Fr. Frederick L. Miller, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., is the Chairman of the Department of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He has extensive parish experience and has spent nearly twenty years as a seminary professor and spiritual director. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Fr. Miller about his new book, The Grace of Ars.
Ignatius Insight: When did you make your first retreat to Ars? What inspired you to do make the retreat?
Fr. Miller: From 2002 to 2005 I was assigned as a spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In 2004, a group of deacons and seminarians from the College asked me to conduct a retreat on the spirituality of the Diocesan Priest at the sanctuary of St. John Marie Vianney in Ars, France. When I was a seminarian, my spiritual director, Msgr. James C. Turro, told me that the greatest work of mercy a priest can perform is the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. I've always tried to take that to heart and live it. So, when the young men asked me to preach on the priesthood, I heard the voice of Jesus in their voices calling me to priestly service. The retreat proved to be the beginning of a very happy relationship with the Cure of Ars.
I made the pilgrimage to Ars in 2005 with another group from the North American College. Returning to the States in the summer of 2005, I was assigned to Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In 2007 a group of the deacons at the Mount asked me to lead a pilgrimage to Ars. I gave another retreat to priests in Ars that summer. More of the seminarians requested a retreat in the parish of the Cure of Ars in 2009. A week or so after returning to the seminary, the Holy Father announced the special "Year for Priests". Needless to say, a very large group asked for a retreat during this year dedicated to the sanctification of priests.
I just returned home on March 7th after having led a group of 42 priests and seminarians on retreat at the seminary in Ars. I expect to return again this summer with a group of priests for yet another retreat on the spirituality of the diocean priest as seen through the lens of St. John Vianney's priestly ministry. Preaching on the saint in his own parish Church has immensely enriched me in my understanding and living of the gift of the priesthood.
Ignatius Insight: You admit, in the opening chapter, "Throughout the three decades of my priesthood, I had rarely felt drawn to the Cure of Ars." Why was that? What changed?
Fr. Miller: Frankly, I think many of the pictures and statues of St. John Marie Vianney are "off-putting". He is very often depicted as gaunt, sad, and emaciated. Then there are the accounts of his life that place emphasis on his penetential practices that seem so extreme to Catholics in the 21st Century.
When I gave the first retreat in Ars I discovered in prayer and reflection that St. John Vianney's grace was to be 100% a priest. He had and has no identity apart from his identification with Jesus Christ, the Priest. Spending time in his parish Church, I discovered in a new and beautiful way the essential identity of the priest as preacher of the Word, dispenser of the Sacraments, and shepherd of God's people. It is impossible not to be moved by the generosity of a man who often spent fifteen hours a day, seven days a week hearing confessions!
Ignatius Insight: The Grace of Ars contains the retreat conferences you led at Ars. What do those conferences consist of and what will readers gain from reading them?
Fr. Miller: In the conferences I attempt to present the Church's doctrine on the priesthood as seen through the lens of the life and mission of St. John Marie Vianney. I write about the pilgrimage to Ars and the grace that comes through reflection on the life of the Saint, the supernatural vocation to the priesthood, the meaning of priestly consecration to Christ, the poverty, chastity, and obedience of the diocesan priest as lived by St. John Vianney, his profound devotion to the Blessed Mother, and his identification with Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church.
In my estimation, the most significant chapter is on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. There I attempt to explain how the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ are re-presented in the life of the penitent who confesses his or her sins to Christ through the priest. I am hoping that many people will make more frequent and fruitful use of this sacrament of Divine Mercy.
Ignatius Insight: My impression is that despite being the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney doesn't seem to be especially well-known. Do you think that is true? Why or why not?
Fr. Miller: I have read that when Pope John Paul II first made a pilgrimage to France, some of the French bishops asked him not to go the Ars. Why? They felt that Vianney presented an antiquated image of the priest that the Pope should not perpetuate. Needless to say, Pope John Paul did not share their impression of the Cure of Ars. He said that John Vianney was and is "a peerless model of the priest". On his next visit to France, he visited Ars and again held Vianney up as a model for the post-Vatican II priest. I believe that many priests and laypeople are rediscovering Vianney and the beauty of his holiness during this "Year for Priests".
Many priests have been led to think that there is no specific spirituality for the diocesan priest. If the priest wants to be spiritual, he needs to adapt the spirituality or at least facets of the spirituality of one of the religious orders of the Church, for example, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, or the Jesuits. It is widely said that Ignatian spirituality is best suited for the diocesan priest. Needless to say, diocesan priests existed and became holy for more than a millenium before the establishment of the Society of Jesus! John Vianney in a very dramatic way demonstrates by his life that the specific spirituality of the priest flows from the very character (indelible seal) of the priesthood. In The Grace of Ars I attempted to sketch a kind of outline of the spirituality of the priest that is intimately rooted in the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. John Vianney is the model without peer of the spirituality of the diocesan priest.
Ignatius Insight: What are some facts or observations about St. John Vianney that most people don't know? What are some things about him that you like to point out to those just starting to learn about his life?
Fr. Miller: Three things come to mind: First of all, Vianney grew up during the worst years of the French Revolution. He experienced a Church under siege--a Church suffering bloody persecution. He received his first Holy Communion in a barn under the shadow of night. The fidelity of his family to the gospel and to the One Church of Christ helped to form him in his own dedication to Christ and the Church.
Second, although most of his time as a priest was spent in preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, the Saint initiated and led various works of charity in his parish. He cared for many poor people--giving away his own food to feed them. He started a school for the poor of the parish and an orphanage for young girls. The orphanage known as La Providence was the pride and joy of his priestly life. His care for unwanted children places Vianney among the special patrons of the pro-life movement.
Third, three times during his 41 years as pastor of Ars, Vianney, feeling the call to a life of hidden prayer, abandoned his parishioners as pastor of Ars and "ran away" to join a monastery. On all three occasions, he turned back to his post in Ars, recalling the mission he had been given by his bishop: "There is not much love of God in Ars. You will bring some love there". This fact consoles many priests who feel the burden of parochial ministry and sometimes feel like "running away" too!
Ignatius Insight: What are some lessons that priests can learn from studying and reflecting upon the person and life of St. John Vianney? What about lay people?
Fr. Miller: I wrote this book for priests, seminarians, and the lay faithful. During this Year for Priests Pope Benedict will name Vianney the patron saints of all priests--not just parish priests. I believe the Holy Father has decided to do this to remind all priests that the essence of the priesthood is in the proclamation of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, and in the pastoral love they show to God's people. I hope the book will inspire all priests and seminarians, both religious and diocesan, to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a more radical way for the sake of pastoral charity.
In the book, I urge priests to make the pilgrimage to Ars, to stay at the seminary in Ars, and to recommit themselves to priestly life and ministry in the presence of the Cure of Ars. I hope the book convinces priests that they do have their own specific spirituality defined by the demands of pastoral love for Christ's flock. I am praying that the book will help young men to appreciate the beauty of the priesthood and to hear and follow Christ's call. Finally, I hope that the book will help the lay faithful, many of whom have been scandalized by the behavior of priests in the recent past, to see and reverence Christ living and acting in the person of their parish priests.
I recently gave my sixth retreat in Ars to 42 priests and seminarians from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. As in the past, I returned home more convinced than ever that there is a strong medicine in Ars to cure the ills of the priesthood in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. In short, I know that there is a Grace of Ars for the whole Church.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:
Saint John Vianney: A Celibate Man with Scores of Children | Fr. Frederick L. Miller | From The Grace of Ars
Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis" of the Curé of Ars | Pope Benedict XVI
St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
Vianney: The Drama | An Interview with Leonardo Defilippis
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
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